“I will absolve you of your oath!” Heraclius declared with a dramatic gesture. Light from the candles and lamps glinted off the rings on his fingers. “What is an oath to a Saracen anyway?” he asked rhetorically. “Worthless! Meaningless! You owe it to Christ to remain here and take command!”
“Amen!” echoed the representatives of the guilds and merchant companies, crossing themselves emphatically.
The only one in the room who appeared to have the slightest sympathy for Ibelin’s situation was the Grand Hospitaller. The Hospitaller priest met Balian’s eyes with a look of great sorrow and shook his head to say he could not help him.
“There are more than sixty thousand people in this city, my lord!” the Pisan representative pointed out. “You cannot just abandon us!”
“Salah al-Din offered you generous terms,” Ibelin reminded him.
The men around the table looked baffled, and Heraclius answered for them: “You can’t be serious! How can we surrender Jerusalem? This is the holiest site in Christendom! You know what happened when the Muslims controlled it. They razed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They slaughtered all the monks and priests in the city!” As he spoke, the Greek, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox bishops nodded their heads solemnly.
“And what does Queen Sibylla say?” Ibelin asked, his eyes sweeping the room in a gesture to draw attention to her absence.
“She says she will not interfere. She will respect whatever decision we make,” Heraclius answered. “She has asked to be allowed to join her husband.”
Ibelin knew this already from Maria, so it did not surprise him, but he could not repress a snort of contempt—mostly for Heraclius’ sake.
“You should welcome the Queen’s attitude, my lord,” Heraclius countered. “She has abdicated her role to you—and so do I. I hereby publicly and irrevocably recognize you as the sole and supreme commander for the defense of Jerusalem.”
“I have not accepted that command,” Ibelin retorted sharply. He did not like being forced into a corner.
“My lord.” It was an Armenian merchant who spoke. “We will all die one day. Do you want to face Our Lord as the man who abandoned the site of His passion and left it to desecration?”
Ibelin stared at the man.
“We would all rather die a martyr’s death than do that,” announced the master of the Furrier’s Guild. He was a burly man with a gruff voice.
“And your wives and children?” Ibelin asked back.
“We have agreed among ourselves to kill them rather than allow them to be taken away into shameful slavery.”
“You would repeat Masada?” Ibelin asked, his eyes sweeping around the table, making eye contact with one after another. They met his eyes, some defiant, some troubled, but all nodded one after another until Ibelin’s eyes came to the master of the Potter’s Guild.
This gray-haired master asked in a belligerently reproachful tone, “Do you love Christ less than the Jews loved their Ark of the Covenant?”
Ibelin didn’t answer the question. It was obvious that these men were more than disappointed—they were shocked to discover that Ibelin had not come to lead their futile defense of Jerusalem.
Balian considered himself a devout man, but he had never seen himself in the role of martyr. He most certainly could not embrace the idea of killing Maria, Isabella, and his four innocent children. It was one thing to lead a near-suicidal charge of fighting men; it was something else again to turn his weapons against those he loved. He lacked that kind of fanaticism. “You are trying to impose upon me the decision you took when you turned down Salah al-Din’s generous terms to surrender in exchange for your lives and property. I did not make that decision to sacrifice my family for the sake of martyrdom.”
“No, you didn’t,” the master of the Carpenters’ Guild admitted. “But we are begging you to stay and help us now.” He looked at Ibelin with large brown eyes over a graying beard. He might have been St. Joseph, Balian found himself thinking involuntarily.
“Just what do you think I can accomplish? If you are prepared to die a martyr’s death, what difference does it make if you are well or poorly led? Death is death.”
“But we can make them bleed a little!” the furrier master declared forcefully, pounding his clenched fist on the oak table to underline his point, and the others nodded—even the Orthodox clerics.
“Maybe we can make it so costly that they give up,” a Syrian weapons merchant suggested, his eyes fixed hopefully on Ibelin.
So, this was their vain hope, Balian registered, and he shook his head. They needed to get that fairy tale out of their heads. “Salah al-Din has promised his imams and emirs Jerusalem. He does not care what it costs.”
“Then by making it so costly that they regret their own intransigence, we can win a victory even in death,” the Grand Hospitaller told them solemnly, speaking for the first time.
“What do you mean?” Ibelin challenged him.
“The army of Jerusalem has been obliterated, and the fighting men left here in Outremer are too few and too weak to defend the Holy Places. But even now, ships are flying on the wind to bring word to Rome, to Paris, to London and Cologne. We are weak, but Christendom is strong. I know my brothers in the West—and the Templars, too—will not accept the loss of the Holy Land. King Henry of England has pledged his support and has already raised a fortune. Friedrich Barbarossa is no less committed to the Holy Land. The Christian kings and lords will come as they came before—and the Plantagenet and Barbarossa are not fickle and foolish like Louis VII. They are both tried and proven fighting men. Such men will regain what Lusignan lost. We can make it easier for them by reminding Salah al-Din here—at Jerusalem—that he has much to fear from Christian knights! He has forgotten that after Hattin, I think.”
“Just how many knights are here?” Ibelin asked dryly, for he knew the answer.
“You, Sir Ulric and Sir Said, I believe,” Heraclius admitted.
Ibelin looked at him and then back at the Grand Hospitaller with raised eyebrows.
“So much the better,” the Grand Hospitaller answered with a faint smile. “Then we will teach Salah al-Din to fear all Franks—even Franks who are of common birth and not trained to arms.”
“I beg to correct you, my lord,” the Armenian spoke up sharply. “We will teach Salah al-Din to fear Christians! It is not the Franks alone who will defend Jerusalem!” He was seconded by the Syrians and Greeks at the table.
The Grand Hospitaller bowed his head to them and conceded, “I stand corrected, my lord of Ibelin. We will teach Salah al-Din that Christian men are not sheep to be slaughtered, but fierce defenders of their faith.”
Ibelin looked around the table at the twenty men assembled, and they gazed back at him expectantly and proudly. Heraclius’ fingers were drumming on the table. It surprised Balian that the Patriarch was here. He had not expected the self-indulgent luxury lover to fancy martyrdom.
“I will think about it,” Ibelin conceded.
Outside, the crowd had thinned, but it had not dispersed. When Ibelin emerged from the Patriarch’s palace, a little cheer went up and many people moved forward to touch him, as if he were a saint or a king, while others called out, “God bless you, my lord!” from the back of the crowd. A grinning boy led Centurion forward, having evidently appointed himself to look after the desterier although Balian had left him tethered. Ibelin automatically reached for his purse to tip the boy, but the boy shook his head. “No need, my lord,” he said, and then went around to hold the off stirrup as Ibelin mounted.
As Balian took up the reins, he looked down at the boy. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Ravon, my lord.”
“Are you from Jerusalem?”
“No, my lord, we’re from Bethlehem.”
“We? Who is with you?”
“My Mum and Dad and my five brothers and sisters.”
“What does your father do?”
“He was the gardener at the Armenian seminary behind the Church of the Nativity, my lord.”
Ibelin said no more; he just nodded and nudged Centurion forward. What would happen to the likes of Ravon when Jerusalem fell? Ravon certainly had no say in whether or not the city was defended, but he would pay the price, along with the rest of his family.
It was from here a very short ride home, but Balian could feel the dome of the Holy Sepulcher looming to his right and knew he must go there. He dismounted and, looking back, saw Ravon run forward eagerly to take Centurion from him again. With a smile he turned over his faithful destrier and walked back past the Patriarch’s palace to turn into the narrow street, lined with souvenir and trinket shops, that led to the entrance to the Holy Sepulcher.
The courtyard of the church was full of people, but they parted for him, a whisper of awe running through the crowd from those who recognized him to those who did not. He passed through the portal into the church itself. This was lit by candles, and the air was heavy with incense. Immediately ahead of him, against the back side of the choir, were the tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem. Balian paused to kneel before Baldwin IV’s tomb. “You were lucky to go when you did,” he told his former pupil silently.
“But if I’d lived longer, maybe I would have found a way to get rid of Guy,” Baldwin seemed to answer.
“Guy and Ridefort together lost Jerusalem,” Balian told his dead friend.
“Jerusalem?” Baldwin asked back. “Guy and Ridefort lost Hattin. Jerusalem is still Christian.”
“Am I to defend it with just three knights?”
“How many knights did you have at Ascalon?”
“You brought me 376 knights.”
“I issued the arrière-ban. Do not underestimate the power of people imbued with faith.”
Balian looked up at the effigy on the tomb. It was calm and beautiful, unmarked by the ravages of leprosy; it was not a portrait but a symbol. It was the way Baldwin would have liked to be remembered. “What would you have done if you had survived?” Balian asked silently.
“How can you even ask?” Baldwin reproached him. “When did I ever fail to defend my Kingdom? I would do so from the grave if I could. And you are still my knight, Balian. You were always my lance and my sword. Do not fail me now.”
Balian stood and proceeded to the rotunda. Here the crowds were thicker than ever; many people knelt on the flagstone floor, praying fervently. Others were lighting candles before the Grave Chapel, while in the choir several hundred people stood pressed together, following the Mass being read by the canons of the Holy Sepulcher. All twelve canons who had accompanied the True Cross to Hattin had been killed. There could not be more than a dozen left, Balian reckoned. But two of these stood as usual at the entrance to the Grave Chapel, controlling access. They recognized the Baron of Ibelin as he approached and parted without a word; one even bowed his head.
“I wish to be alone,” Ibelin told them as he passed into the chapel. They did not answer, but took up their position before the entrance again, ensuring no one could follow.
Balian descended the steep stairs to the grave itself. The grave was cool, almost chilly, lit only by candles. Balian went down on his knees and bowed his head. He recited the Lord’s Prayer. Then he sat back on his heels and considered the grave.
“Thy will be done.” It was so easy to say, but he was expected to make decisions and take actions.
Balian did not doubt the divinity of Christ even for an instant—but he knew, too, with what conviction and fervor the Muslims too believed that they were doing God’s will. Did they not shout “God is great” every time they won a victory over the armies of Christ? He had even been told that they shouted “God is great” while executing the unarmed and bound Templar and Hospitaller prisoners after Hattin.
Balian did not believe it was God’s will for helpless men to be gruesomely tortured to death, as had happened in Damascus. He did not believe it was God’s will that the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been squandered on a single battlefield because of the poor decisions of a usurper. He did not believe it was God’s will that Guy was King of Jerusalem at all. And that was his problem. Men made decisions and took actions that were—all too often—not in accordance with His will.
Balian laid himself face down on the cold surface of the grave beside the ledge on which Christ’s mortal remains had lain more than a thousand years before. The space was too narrow for him to stretch out his arms to either side, so he cradled his head on them instead, and tried to empty his brain entirely. He was not here to plead, beg, or even ask for anything. He was here to receive the Will of God.
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